After Carrie Fisher’s death, Steve Martin tweeted a tribute that expressed the sentiments of every one of my buddies from childhood: “When I was a young man, Carrie Fisher was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. She turned out to be witty and bright as well.”
I saw Star Wars in the theater in 1977. I was seven years old. Before that, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was the most mesmerizing female I’d ever seen. There were Charlie’s Angels, the starlets on The Love Boat, Chrissy from Three’s Company, and the new girl in second grade who wore sparkly lip gloss, but they were no match for Wonder Woman. Who could possibly compete with an Amazon in a one-piece who fought Nazis and, later, 1970s criminals?
When Star Wars introduces us to Princess Leia, she’s committing treason. In her second appearance, she confronts Darth Vader, the most frightening villain in cinematic history, with such courage that the viewer is forced to doubt his initial assessment of the villain’s personal qualities. Vader’s own entourage recoils in fear at his every gesture, yet this five-foot-one teenager tells him off to his face — and gets away with it.
To quote Elwood Blues confronted by Carrie Fisher shooting a machine gun in a tunnel in The Blues Brothers three years later: “Who is that girl?”
Leia was a princess born for rule, not rescue, and Fisher was the woman seemingly born to play her.
Mention Princess Leia to a radical feminist, though, and the metal-bikini scenes from Return of the Jedi will pop up faster than a light saber with a hair-trigger power button. The familiar refrain will commence. Star Wars reduced its heroine to a sex object, proving it to be sexist as well as militarist, racist, etc.
Help us, Shirley Chisholm, you’re our only hope.
This, of course, misses the point of the bikini (at least within the story) and of what it revealed about the character who was forced to wear it.
According to fairy tales, princesses are supposed to be rescued by brave men. Star Wars’ 1977 audience is culturally conditioned to expect Luke Skywalker and Han Solo to whisk the helpless princess to safety. No one was prepared for the princess in that flowing white robe.
When Luke enters Leia’s cell on the Death Star, her immediate response is to mock him: “Aren’t you a little short for a storm trooper?” As the rescue goes from one mishap to another, she takes over.
Leia is arguably the best-written character in the first three Star Wars movies. There is a depth to her character that Han Solo certainly lacks, though Harrison Ford makes up for the deficiency with charm and raw skill, and that Mark Hamill’s Luke struggles to reach. But immense credit must go to Carrie Fisher, who managed to convey with grace and elegance the character’s frustrations, anger, hope, determination, heroism, and love.
Leia was a princess born for rule, not rescue, and Fisher was the woman seemingly born to play her. Fisher was only 19 when Star Wars was filmed, and yet her character seems wiser, worldlier, and vastly more mature than that of Luke, played by Hamill, who was five years older than Fisher, and Han Solo, played by Ford, who was 14 years older.
Few women on screen were ever more desirable than Carrie Fisher’s Leia, who remained covered from chin to toe in the first two Star Wars films. She was in the bikini only briefly — and reluctantly — in Jedi. How did she manage to be the inspiration of a million schoolboy fantasies?
Yes, she was beautiful. But so were lots of other actresses who revealed a lot more skin. Her beauty is not what made Leia such a catch. As Han Solo said, “she’s got a lot of spirit.”
Her wits and intellect were matched by none but the Jedi, and her courage was surpassed by no one.
Fisher’s Leia was no one to be trifled with. She rebuffed romantic advances with disdain, took charge when the half-baked plans of the swashbuckling would-be heroes inevitably went awry, and methodically imposed her will on the chaos of a fledgling rebellion. She rose from diplomat to war hero to general to historical legend, remaining a constant and steady leader when others drifted in and out of service.
Her wits and intellect were matched by none but the Jedi, and her courage was surpassed by no one. And yet she was not the capable, unattractive female friend of the romantic lead, she was the romantic lead.
This is the type of woman that young boys growing up on Star Wars movies were taught to desire. You weren’t going to conquer a woman like that. You weren’t going to win her with singles-bar charm or on-field heroics. This is a woman who made you want to be a better man.
The films show this effect working beautifully on Han Solo. He deploys all of his roguish charm to no effect. He just can’t impress her with heroics or good looks. She makes clear that if he’s to have any chance with her, he has to rise to her level. The rebellion doesn’t make Han Solo a better man. Leia does.
Han responds at last to Leia’s demand for a virtuous man.
As the Star Wars story unfolds, the men in Leia’s life all learn to treat her as a respected equal, or even a superior. The bikini? It was forced on her by literally an inhuman monster. The message could hardly have been clearer. Men don’t treat women like this. Men strive to rescue women from situations like this.
For her part, Fisher makes Leia endure the humiliation with a burning dignity. Watch the scene again. She holds her head like a monarch, not a slave. Her eyes say, “Enjoy the view while you can, buddy, but as soon as you turn away I’m going to cut out that drooling tongue and beat you to death with it.”
When someone asked what little girls should be told about a Princess Leia action figure wearing the bikini, Fisher said, characteristically, “Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it.”Now, Fisher really did hate that outfit. She made it her character’s motivation for killing Jabba the Hutt. Maybe she really wanted to strangle George Lucas, but then, who doesn’t?
Sure, Lucas used the costume to exploit Fisher’s looks. But that doesn’t make the Star Wars films or its fan boys sexist, and it is the least important or interesting thing about the Leia character and Lucas’s creation of it.
Through that character, Lucas transformed the princess from helpless damsel in distress to powerful heroine. He was not the first to do this. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Arwen is a similar figure. The question is, why is this so seldom acknowledged?
Princess Leia should be a feminist icon. Instead, the scolds fail to see the full character because they’re so fixated on that stupid bikini.
— Andrew Cline is a writer and communications consultant in New Hampshire.